Elise Hofer Derstine's Food (and Farm) Story, part 1

"I want spiritual peace in my contribution to the world. Can I do all that just by raising chickens? Who knows. I’m here to find out." - Elise Hofer Derstine

Well now that we’ve got our cookie fix worked out for the time being, it seems some poultry and pig are in order, and of course another Mennonite Women’s Food Story. Today we’re talking Elise Hofer Derstine from Goshen, Indiana. Elise is talking the poultry and pig!

Elise Hofer Derstine. Photo by Libby Franklin

I first met Elise at Goshen College, sitting on the front porch of her house, probably eating cheese. Such was the Monday evening ritual during that time. There are a few things I could quickly sense about Elise even then: She exudes the being of a writer and a woman of trajectory, is a witty conversationalist and a clearly darn good cook.

Over the last few years I’ve kept up with Elise’s trajectory via good ole’ Facebook and certainly took note when the photos shifted from Washington DC urban life to pigs, chickens, and muck boots. She had clearly left city life for the the farm. Blue Heron Farm to be exact. So when I began reflecting on Mennonite food, Mennonite cookbooks and Mennonite women (oh and pork) Elise immediately came to mind. 

A more urban Elise perspective. Photo by Tim Hofer

The farmer-esque lens: Muck boots and Pigs. Photo by Rod Hofer

On that note, The Food (and Farm) Story of Elise Hofer Derstine, written by the farmer herself…

Elise grew up in Lawrence, Kansas. One of her earliest memories is of grinding peanuts into peanut butter at the co-op across the street from her nursery school. She attended Peace Mennonite Church, which in its earliest years was little more than a few hippies—her parents included—gathering for backyard potlucks. Today, when she is not potlucking with her friends, Elise works as a writer, editor, and farmer. She lives with her husband in Goshen, Indiana.  

Tell us a bit about the farm - what you grow and raise, its evolution, your vision.
This is the simplest way to describe what we do: my husband Adam and I, in partnership with some friends, raise pastured chickens and turkeys, pastured pigs, and grass-fed beef cattle, all of which we sell to the Goshen community. We’re also part of a large community garden that provides most of our produce in the summer months. 

Adam - Elise's husband. Photo by Elise

But of course the story of our farm isn’t truly a simple one. We moved to Goshen two years ago after spending five years in DC, and we knew we were interested in getting involved with farming. Some friends of friends—Tom Stinson and Casandra Byler, who own Blue Heron Farm—were raising about 100 chickens that summer, and helped butcher them at the end of the season. By the following spring we were in a full partnership with them, ordering 500 baby chicks for the summer and buying 20 hogs at a livestock auction. And now of course they are two of our very best friends.

We share chores, expenses, and ideas. Adam and I live in town and help out on Tom and Cas’s land, but we’re also borrowing land not far from our house, which is where the pigs are right now. Another friend, Adam Scharf, helps with the chickens and broods the chicks with us on his land, which is also in town. Land is incredibly expensive to buy, so this is working out for now, and I love being a farmer while living in downtown Goshen. It’s kind of the best of both worlds.

In the future, if we grow our business and it becomes feasible to purchase farmland, we’ll definitely consider it. But one of the great things about local food and small farms is that they’re flexible. We don’t own very much equipment, or any buildings. Our arrangement is unorthodox, but it works, and it has allowed us to try out farming without quitting our day jobs or taking on debt. 

Their pigs in autumn Indiana woods. Photo by the Hofer Derstines
Turkey Turkey Turkey. Photo by the Hofer Derstines

What motivated you to get involved in farming?
I was living in DC, getting tired of the city, and feeling conflicted about graduate school. I happened to be reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma for work, and I was especially fascinated by a section of the book about a sustainable operation outside of Staunton, Virginia, called Polyface Farm.

Soon enough Adam and I had traveled out to Polyface several times, and had met Joel Salatin, who many would describe as the most famous and influential farmer in America. For years he has been spreading his ministry about grass-based, sustainable farming…and, well, I totally got the bug. (By the way, I once heard someone ask, “Oh, so you’re an OD-er?”—as in, Omnivore’s Dilemma—so I’m not the only one.) 

So that’s how it started. Even though I wasn’t necessarily interested in farming before I read the book, my other interests complement the farm life. I am a writer and poet, and do my best work when I am stimulated by my surroundings—after I’ve spent time outdoors, working with my hands. And of course, I love food and cooking.

Ultimately, it’s the farming lifestyle that I want, though I try not to romanticize it too much. I want my community to benefit from my work. I want to raise children to be stewards of the earth. I want to work beside my husband, learning to complement our strengths and weaknesses. And I want spiritual peace in my contribution to the world. Can I do all that just by raising chickens? Who knows. I’m here to find out.

Photo by Elise
Taking turkeys out to pasture. Photo by Adam Derstine

Have your food choices or perspectives changed since being on the farm?
I can’t stomach a factory-farmed chicken, or a winter tomato. Being educated about food is a very powerful tool—it empowers you to make choices that, I believe, are better for everyone: you, the farmer, the animal, the earth. And it’s relatively easy because everything tastes better anyway.

You seem to have an affinity for the pig… Yes? Do tell.  
Oh, the pig. Pigs are my favorite animal. They are intelligent, curious, funny, social. They don’t poop where they eat or sleep (good luck getting a chicken to do that). And they like beer, cantaloupe, and back scratches, just like I do.

I do grow attached to them, and it is hard to say good bye in the fall. But I believe in eating meat as a part of my diet, and pork is an incredibly delicious, versatile food. Bacon—especially home cured—astounds me. As an omnivore, I’d rather eat my own pork than anyone else’s.

Friendly pig. Photo by Adam Derstine
Photo by Adam Derstine

On butchering -  what are your methods or rituals?
We butchered our own chickens and turkeys last year, but this year we are taking them to an Amish family that has a custom butchering business. We had three batches of 200 birds this summer and couldn’t handle the volume by ourselves. Tom and Adam also usually butcher one pig together.  The rest of the pigs go to another small butcher that handles larger animals.

We are very blessed to have so many affordable butcher operations in our area—I’ve heard it’s a huge problem in the northeast, where lots of people are doing small-scale farming but don’t have the facilities to process their meat.

I actually enjoy the poultry butchering process. It is humbling and satisfying to participate in and witness the life cycle of an animal, and butchering (and then eating) completes the circle. It feels good to gather with friends and do important, productive work. Plus, we usually have awesome pic-nic lunches with pie, made by Casandra.

Elise eviscerating a chicken
Adam and Tom scalding chickens
Where did you learn to garden and cook?
My appreciation for food in general comes from my whole family. We sat down for dinner together nearly every night of my childhood. Now that we three children are grown, when we come together we linger after meals over glasses of wine or cups of coffee. It’s the way we communicate, the centering element that reigns us all in. And it’s something I will always carry with me. A moveable feast!

Elise and her mother. Photo by Rod Hofer

I learned to cook by watching my mother, working in a café, and living on my own. I am still an amateur gardener, but I volunteered on an organic vegetable farm for a year and learned a lot about how to grow food (and got lots of delicious produce in exchange for my work).

What do you look for in a cookbook?
I look for seasonal meals (including good pantry options for winter cooking), and fairly simple ingredient lists. Of course, this is because I am constantly cooking and need really simple meals. If I am making food for guests, I get fancier.

I use Bon Appetit magazine, Simply in Season, The New Moosewood Cookbook, and The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters—that one is probably my fave

What recipe would you like to share?!
Lemon Basil Chicken! It is my go-to dinner for company. You can get it in the oven quickly and then spend the next 40 minutes preparing the rest of the meal. Of course, I also make it for just me and my husband, because we love the leftovers—I often shred the chicken into a couscous salad or soup the next day.

Thanks to Elise for sharing!!  Of course, Part 2 is Lemon Basil Chicken. I just recently made it and can attest to its utterly delicious nature and simplicity. Even amongst my mistake (yes, even food bloggers make them... But that's another story. :) 

For more on Elise’s farming operation, check out their website.

For more of Elise’s food writing, check out her article in Edible Michiana about Clay Bottom Farm.


  1. Katie and Elise,

    Thank you so much for this profile, the photos, and the gift this morning of thinking more deeply about choosing the life of a farmer.

    Bless your writing and all your days with your fingers in the earth!

    Joy Resor
    Joy on Your Shoulders TM

  2. I just loved reading this story and thinking about how much fun (hard work can be fun--one of the most important legacies of Mennonite community) this group of people must be having.

    Katie, one of the things your blog can do is stimulate interest in the Amish and Mennonite farm communities that many young people in the past were happy to leave. There are new ways to make a living today that can benefit from being close to the old land, the old faith, and the older people. Creativity prospers in such spaces. Scott Russel Sanders writes about it.

    Love to all the Goshen College graduate farmers out there. Adam Derstine, you are renewing the Anabaptist Vision, and Elise and Katie, you are giving it Voice. Adam can explain. :-)

    Katie, a thought for your cookbook. Be sure to check out the long conversation I started on FB by asking the question, "Do you underline your books?" Karin Larson Krisetya said something about her cookbooks you might want to consider in your format. . .

  3. Joy, thank you! What a beautiful blessing you have written here--I think I'll copy it down for my bulletin board.

    Shirley, we are indeed having fun. And I'll be sure to ask Adam about the Vision and Voice. :)

  4. Joy, Your imagery is beautiful... Has me thinking about my humble garden and how grateful I am for that small patch of dirt. :)

    Shirley, Thanks for your thoughtful comment! It sparks so many ideas in my head that I've been jotting down in my little travel journal. On creativity, land, ancestry, culture, ritual.
    I love Karin's habit of note-taking in her cookbooks. I'm envisioning a new take on the "notes" page. Thanks for sharing my blog there!